Why We Want To Be Independent Professionals?

Being an independent professional who works from his or her home office -- someone I called a “spare room tycoon,” -- is more than just a way of making a living, it is a way of living your life.

It isn’t an easy way to live. In the past, being in business independently was the norm, and people typically worked and lived in the same place. That isn’t the case today, when most people are employees. Everyone from the tax collector to our mothers would understand us better if we would just go out and get a job.

Moreover, many of us who choose independence make the further decision to stay small. This contradicts a popular conception of entrepreneurship, which holds that everyone wants to run a big business and get rich. If you want to be a spare room tycoon, then, get ready to be misunderstood.

When I talk about spare room tycoons, I often find myself describing what we aren’t. We aren’t unemployed. We aren’t between jobs. We don’t loll around all day in our pyjamas. We aren’t failing just because we’re not taking on new employees and tripling our business each year. We aren’t idle just because we’re home, nor, by contrast, are we workaholics just because our home lives and our productive lives frequently overlap.

It is more difficult, given that spare room tycoons are so disparate and represent so many different, strongly held views, to make a positive statement of what we are.

My interviewing with independent professionals convinces me, however, that we do have some important common characteristics. One is that we are impatient. We want to do what we want to do when we want to do it, without waiting for someone else to give us permission. And while anxieties and insecurities are our frequent companions, we have a very high estimation of our own abilities. We’re people who don’t exactly fit in, and are proud not to. We may make our own mistakes sometimes, but we despise making somebody else’s. Most of us recall, even as children, having an independent streak and all the troubles and rewards that such a personality can bring. And while I haven’t found any research that backs this up, many of us come from families with members who were in business for themselves.

What are we looking for is money, naturally, but we shouldn’t be too quick to accept that as the only answer. For all the people in this book, business is more than making money. It is how they express themselves in the world. They can’t say that what they do is just a job -- because it is not just a job.

What we are looking for, I think, is integrity. We are seeking to integrate all our interests, talents, personality, and character into a way of life that expresses who we are. Of course, we need to compromise; we can’t expect always to be doing what we love. Striving for balance in our lives is a never-ending challenge. Most of us discover that we must establish clear boundaries between our personal lives and our careers in order to preserve our health, our families, and our sanity. Nevertheless, even those who draw that line most distinctly still view their businesses as embodiments of their personal talents and values.

It is true that there are also many employees who hope that their work will utilize their talents and enable them to have a lasting and positive impact on the world. (Some such people are strong candidates to become spare room tycoons.) In general, though, our culture doesn’t support such aspirations. We are encouraged to view our paycheck as full recompense for our labors, while personal satisfaction is to be found in our private lives, which will be made more elaborate, exciting and fulfilling by all that money can buy.

During an airplane flight when I was first starting work on this book, I read an article in a business magazine. It argued that seeing your business as an outgrowth of yourself is a sickness. The article said that we should view our businesses solely as ways to make a lot of money as quickly as we can. Then we should use that money to live the lives we want. For some this might be relaxation on a small tropical island, but it could also mean writing a novel, engaging in philanthropy, living a life of prayer and contemplation, or playing the stock market.

This argument is attractive because it identifies entrepreneurship with the core beliefs of our society about getting and spending. Moreover, it feeds into our fantasies of riches and freedom. It implies that fabulous wealth is lying around for the taking, available to all. I know I’d love to have enough money to realize all my dreams, and so would the rest of the people I know. But I also understand enough about the culture I live in to know that I would then begin to have more expensive dreams, and that I’d have to keep laboring to realize those. I’d never be able to disentangle the price of my material indulgences from my value as a person.

Our lives consist not just in how we spend our money but also, and probably more crucially, in what we do to earn it. Our work is the way in which we have an impact on our place and our times. We express ourselves in the world through our work. You can’t simply avert your eyes from what you do and still be the sort of person you want to be. You can’t just buy a good life. You have to live a good life. And though many of us might shy away from such grand pronouncements, living a good life is what most independent professionals are trying to do.


James Chan, Ph.D., is president of Asia Marketing and Management (AMM), a Philadelphia-based consultancy specialized in advising U.S. firms on exporting American-made products and services to China and forging business relationships there. Since he founded his practice in 1983, James Chan has advised more than 100 U.S. companies in expanding their businesses in Asia. To view his background online, go to AsiaMarketingManagement.com.&n...

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