April 16, 2007
Escaping the cubicle
Want to leave the cubicle life behind, but not really sure how to do it?
Michelle Goodman, former "wage slave" turned successful Seattle-based freelance writer and editor explains how in her new book, "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Here she answers our questions:
Q. Why did you write your book specifically for women? (Does your advice apply to men, too?)
A. I wrote the book for women because study after study says we're more likely than men to enter a career thinking, "OK, now how can I finagle some flexibility and autonomy out of this deal?" Our workplace policies are still pretty rigid. A Harvard and McGill University study ranked U.S. workplace policies among the least family-friendly in the developed world.
And since women are still more likely than men to be the primary caregivers for children in this society, we're the ones who need to balance our time at work with the rest of our lives the most. Given that, it's not surprising that women start businesses at twice the rate of men. Besides offering women flexibility, self-employment gives us a way around wage gaps, glass ceilings and mommy traps in the workplace.
That said, my advice does apply to men looking for a more rewarding way to make a buck, too. In fact, after my first book reading, it was fun to see some of my guy friends talking about potential businesses they could start on the side and how they've been meaning to return to that book they've been pretending to write for the past few years.
Q. Does "anti 9 to 5" mean you're some kind of flaming, anti-corporation radical?
A. I'm not anti-corporation. Some of my best clients are megacorporations. But I am very much in favor of more autonomous, flexible work — from flex time and part-time positions to telecommuting and freelancing for people seeking those options.
Companies are finally starting to catch on that happy workers and better policies on work-life balance mean higher retention rates, which, of course, mean less training costs.
Q. How did you succeed in leaving the wage-slave life behind?
A. Actually I was the poster child for how not to go into business for yourself. Because I fled the cube without any savings, clients or business savvy, it took me a couple years before my wages cleared poverty level. I learned by doing everything wrong at first — from waiving client contracts to severely undercharging to failing to market myself.
Obviously, I figured out how to thrive as a self-employed person or I'd be back in the cube now.
A few things help keep me sane and solvent: the freelance friends I regularly trade tips and contacts with; the several months' living expenses I've managed to save; and the fact that I can always go back to an office job if my freelance work suddenly evaporates.
Q. You're a 30-something. Reading between the lines of your book, it seems as if generational differences figure in — with younger people not as likely to want be a corporate suit.
A. Boomers had employer loyalty, pensions and the proverbial gold watch handed to them at retirement. Twenty-somethings and 30-somethings have layoffs, offshoring, and the 24-7 digital leash. Plus, we're lucky if we even get partial benefits. Job security and retirement plans are a historical footnote, yet we're expected to work longer and harder than ever before.
In this less-than-worker-friendly climate, it's not surprising that today's youngest workers place quality of life over living at the office. It's also not surprising that more of us want to try entrepreneurship, as the stats show. I would argue that self-employed people with multiple customers — meaning multiple sources of income — have more job security than employees (who are constantly getting reorg'd and downsized). In fact, I've had most of my clients longer than most of my friends have had their current 9-to-5 jobs.
Q. You talk a lot about how, as you're transitioning to independence, you can balance a "day job" with your passion thing. ...
A. Time and energy are usually the biggest obstacles. But if you take inventory of where your time goes, you'll probably find you waste several hours watching TV you don't even want to watch or lunching with co-workers you don't even like.
Instead, try spending 30 minutes three times a week on that novel you want to write, or your business plan — perhaps on your lunch breaks, the bus ride to work, or at a café after work (where there's no remote control in sight). Taking a class after work is another way to give yourself that creative shot in the arm, as is forming a group of like-minded creative types or entrepreneurs and meeting with them weekly or monthly to brainstorm ideas.
Q. What's the best way for someone to approach what you call their "career heroes" to pick their brain about a new field?
A: Look for someone who's just a few years ahead of you in your dream field. They'll be more in touch with what you're up against than someone who's had the same job for the past three decades. Before you contact a career hero, read up on them and their industry.
I'm a big fan of the short-and-sweet e-mail introduction; it's less intrusive than a phone call. In the e-mail, tell your hero that you'd like to pick their brain for 15-30 minutes whenever and wherever it's convenient for them. Know that this may mean you only get a 10-minute phone call at 9 p.m. at night.
During the meeting, ask pointed questions about how they got to where they are now — what education and training they had, what their first job in the industry was. Don't ask something wildly open-ended like, "Tell me about being a graphic designer," and don't ask them anything you could look up yourself.
Be considerate of their time, don't insist on a job or a peek at their Rolodex, and thank them profusely in a note afterward. And if you're meeting over food or drinks, be sure to pick up the bill.
Q. You talk in the book about how taking a temp job can be a good way to break into a new field. What's the best way to find and approach a suitable temporary agency?
A: Talk to other people working in your field to find out what agencies temps and hiring managers like best. Professional organizations in just about every industry have discussion lists you can join and free or nominally priced events you can attend — both great places to pick people's brains. The Web site ILoveSeattle.org is a great resource for finding professional organizations around town.
Some temp agencies will want you to post a résumé to their Web site, others will want to meet you in person or screen you by phone first. Be prepared to play by their rules. You may want to approach two to three agencies to boost your chances of getting an assignment more quickly.
Q. How can someone figure out what they're passionate about?
A. Ask yourself what skills you've always wanted to learn, what careers you've been envious of, and what you were doing at those points in your life when you were at the top of your game. Don't worry if your answers seem outlandish. People get so bogged down with what they think they're supposed to do for work and they're too quick to dismiss something the least bit unusual as impractical or impossible.
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