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Self-Employment: The Dark Side Of A Romantic Idea

While the idea of a balancing act between work and life is a common thread (and some may say, played out), I’m often fascinated by the struggles that others have with this. Within my own life, there this is a constant tug-of-war as a small business owner between the work and interpersonal relationships. Recently, I came across two great blog posts that expand on this struggle. The second blog gathers some comments from readers and really gets interesting – the story about Frank was incredible. I wanted to share some of my own struggles with running a business for 10 years and maintaining relationships.

I like to joke with people sometimes about the romantic notion many have with being a small business owner. I like to say that women want to be with you because of an air of success, but when they find out what it takes, and how unsuccessful you really are – things get tough. I’ve been toiling to make my business, Calwell Inc., as successful as possible, but, let’s face it, it’s no multi-national corporation. In the early days of the company, I had named it simply “Kevin Costain Technical Services” and  I started with one customer, no investment or startup money, and a belief that I could make this thing work.

Building a business is tough. Long and crazy hours are common. What is not well-known, however, is the kind of obsessive nature you have to have to keep a business operating and have some semblance of a life. There are times when I’m supposed to be sick and resting or on a break from work when a sort-of otherworldly force possesses me to get up and get things done. I don’t describe this as merely a motivation or even a fear thing – its an autonomous response to going a long enough period of time without doing something work-related. Even if you don’t describe that as “dark”, the tightrope that is created by cash-flow (or lack thereof) can be downright scary. For example, if you are three days away from paying your mortgage or rent and don’t have a clear idea of where that money will come from – how well would you sleep at night? For someone who does what I do, I have to grapple with these unusually dark moments just as often as the wonderful – I got the job! – types of moments.

This is the thing I have rarely considered. What type of person would consider being a part of a world like that? What type of person wants to be around that kind of environment? After the romance of “my own consulting business” wears off, who’s there standing, ready to back you up? The answer, thus far, is mainly family and friends. They have been there for me through all the crazy up and downs. Relationships with women, however, have not fared so well. Don’t get me wrong, there is much, much more at work in a relationship than just how I handle the business, but it sure hasn’t helped.

Here are a few of the things women have said to me over the years:

“You love you’re work more than you love me”

“When you’re doing things on the computer – all you do is play”

“I support your work 100%, just be home for dinner every night”

“Nothing good happens on the Internet”

That’s tough to handle. No only is the woman pissed off with what the work does to our relationship – I’m often in a place where they are downright ignorant as to what I actually do. This, I think, is what creates a double-whammy that would destroy most any relationship. If not for my ability to screw things up in other ways, I likely would see my work effecting more relationships. I have often asked myself  “If two people are together – one who works like I do – and a person who works something similar to 9am to 5pm – how can a  relationship like that work?”.

Really – this difficulty with relationships is the hard truth we often ignore. I have never found a way to face this truth very well, or even create discussion about it. I guess it’s a bit of a self-created psychosis, but I’ve come to the point where I expect this problem to occur eventually, and then do the worst thing possible in that situation. What I often have done is use work as a shelter from struggling relationships. I don’t do it all the time, but I know I do it. When there have been issues in past relationships and arguments – I would use my work, my reading, writing, programming, whatever – to shelter myself.. I’m not proud of that. It often seems like, those who work 9 to 5 can turn it off, I seem to take it with me all the time.

Yes, wherever I go, whatever I do, work is with me in some small (or big) way. If you weren’t  me, you might even consider this a curse. And, for many years, I wouldn’t even entertain this point of view. I had always considered that what I do – essentially supporting Calwell Inc. – is who I am. No, WHAT I am. Or, maybe, on a different level, what I was meant to be. When you feel that passionate about something, its hard not to shut out other ideas. It’s hard not to loose track of the balance. When work takes me on a long and grueling path of 12-16 hour days, I pay the price – but increasingly – my loved ones have had to pay for that too. I’m not in my twenties either, so I can’t take it like I used to and bounce back as easily. At times, I feel a sense of regret for how I have treated the people I love for the sake of work.

Is it the work, or is it me? That is a question that I can’t answer with any legitimacy. The work has been a blessing in my life, bringing me in contact with countless interesting and amazing people who, in many cases, have expanded my horizons. The work has been financially good. I’m not rich, but the work has allowed me to use money to gain some freedom (isn’t that what money should be giving us?). In these days of introspection, I think about some of what has to be done to balance these two competing ideal . Here are some of the things I need to do better:

1. Set a time and place for work and sticking to that. When I’m “away” from the work, I should be fully away from it. No reading news on a smartphone, no work-related distractions. There may be a few exceptions, but this has to be as important as it was to “separate work space from sleep space”.

2. Don’t assume that talking about what I do for work is “boring”. Perhaps you make that mistake too? It’s true that others may not know what you talk about, but don’t assume they think it’s boring.

3. Let people in. I make the mistake of not letting others (be it women or not) into my world of work. Perhaps maintaining mystery is a good thing, but when others are so far away from what you do – they will never be invested or involved. For me to WANT support from others, I need better involve others in the working process.

4. Let go. Let others get involved. If you can’t finish something now, let it go until next time.

5. Keep the work stress with work. This one is probably the most difficult in my eyes. Those that may leave work from an office have something of a physical separation – while the work I do comes with me everywhere I go. I need to better leave the work where it belongs.

These are perhaps not all specific to self-employed people, but they are all things I personally plan to work on every day. It may be that I will become “40 years old and still single”, but it won’t be because I haven’t been able to balance work and relationships, not if I have something to say about it. Let it be more because I’m an idiot, at least.

Tell me your story! What do you think of this article? How do you manage the work-relationship balance in your own life?