The Luxuries and Lows of Being Your Own Boss – An Essay by Natalie Powell

Laptop and phone - natalie

As a student, I was never much for raising my hand or leading class discussions, preferring to listen and observe. If I found myself the leader of a group project, this was usually due to others having nominated me, versus a personal desire to lead. I never ran for leadership positions or tried out for lead roles in plays. As a member of my high school lacrosse team, I experienced “stage fright” at our games, and actually dreaded a teammate passing the ball to me, as then- naturally- the eyes of the crowd would swivel my way! I don’t dominate the conversation in a group setting, and tend to branch off to talk to small groups of people. I don’t command the attention of the room.

I’m sure I don’t fit the traditional conception of a “leader,” in that I’d rather listen than talk, and prefer working alone to managing others. Yet as a self-employed educational therapist, I am a leader: the leader of my own business. As such, I make every decision. Every single one. So as someone who never considered herself a “leader,” perhaps I was only considering leadership in the context of group settings. Being the leader of one’s own business of one holds just as much weight as leading a group, and is just as rewarding, and challenging. Below, I present some of the top luxuries of being one’s own boss, matched with the downsides of being the sole manager of your business. If you are self employed, these points may resonate with you. And if you work for a company but have always wondered about managing your own business, perhaps these insights will prove useful.

Complete Freedom or Endless Decision Making? 

Unquestionably, the most “luxurious” part of running your own business is that there’s no need to defend your decisions to others, no need for consensus-seeking or parlaying, and no chance of getting “overruled.”

I create my schedule and choose when to take vacations and decide which networking events to attend and who to meet for coffee. I choose my own clients, who I screen carefully. I decide which continuing education workshops to attend and which professionals to form partnerships with and what services to offer. I do my own marketing and scheduling. I selected my business cards and designed my website and set my rates and wrote my policies. My whole professional life is therefore the ultimate reflection of me; my fingerprints are on every decision. Other entrepreneurs who chart their own courses probably have similar stories- enjoying the freedom to choose which roads to take.

On the flip side, some might say that this situation– which I call complete freedom– equates to an unattractive cycle of endless decision-making. True, there’s no option of shunting hard decisions off to others. Every decision must be made by you: how to organize your marketing efforts, how much to invest in your business, if an interested client will be a good fit for your practice. You must also make sticky decisions regarding the “M Word” (money), such as when to raise your rates, how to go about raising these without losing or upsetting clients, setting a cancellation fee, parting ways with clients amicably, and presenting clients with information they may not want to hear— decisions which you may sometimes wish could be made by someone else.

Therefore, being self-employed can be a “glass half-empty/glass half-full” situation. In order to enjoy the perks of freedom, you can’t be scared of tackling the tough subjects mentioned. On the bright side, if you feel the benefits of freedom outweigh the pressures, you’ll look forward to each working day.

Your Passion as Your Work or No Work-Life Balance? 

My work as a therapist is an extension of myself, as my personality and the way I interact with others is a major part of my job. In addition, I’m self-employed, so my practice is also an expression of myself, as mentioned above. The line between work life and personal life is therefore very thin for me, and at some times, nonexistent. This is something I’m always trying to refine. On one hand, I obtain innumerable benefits from being my own boss. I believe in and enjoy my work as a self-employed educational therapist and would not want to be doing anything else.

That said, sometimes it feels like there’s no off switch for my practice. I know this is a common problem among we self-employed professionals. In my case, it’s just too easy during downtime at home to start idly perusing other therapists’ blogs or giving my inbox a once-over or updating my website or organizing my materials or lesson planning ahead of time. Since I don’t have an employer or assigned working hours, any time of day could potentially become a working hour. When I work is up to me- and as a highly dedicated person- I often find it hard to flip the “off switch.”

Other times, when I am making a concerted effort to not work, something work-related pops up anyway. For example, I market on Facebook and text clients to schedule sessions simply because these are fast and efficient ways to communicate. Yet, using my own personal communication channels for business makes it quite challenging to maintain a strong work/life balance. For example: I could be out and about on a day off, minding my own business, when BANG— a client texts me. As soon as I’ve laid eyes on that text, I’ve worked, if only for a moment.

Sometimes (on extremely busy days) there’s a sense that my practice only sleeps if I do. Needless to say, this is leadership to the extreme, and the reality for many passionate self-employed professionals who are constantly maintaining, thinking about, and managing their practice.

Low-Stress Gig or Pressure Cooker? 

There’s a conception that the self-employed, compared to the 9-5ers, have coosh, low stress gig. In my case, many people assume that my work consists entirely of output (client sessions), discounting the time-consuming input involved. For example, when people ask how many sessions I have per week and I say 18, they assume that I only work 18 hours per week, and the rest of the time do whatever I want.

In reality, I spend hours “greasing the gears” so sessions CAN occur— doing paperwork, emailing, returning phone calls, organizing, researching, keeping accounts, billing, attending meetings, ordering supplies, scheduling, lesson planning… These are all what I call “invisible responsibilities,” in that they directly support a visible outcome- a client session- yet no one knows they exist unless you tell them. Having complete control of my business of one necessarily means that how I carry out these invisible responsibilities reflects on me personally. So there’s plenty of pressure to wear all hats— CEO, marketing officer, accountant— equally well, yet still maintain the supportive and understanding persona so essential to being a therapist. Indeed, many therapists feel very uncomfortable wearing these hats (we went into therapy, not business, for a reason!). We view the business end of things as a necessary evil that allows us to do what we love- help others.

Then, there’s the separate pressure of offering top-quality services, maintaining excellent relationships with clients, getting your name out there, and cultivating a strong professional reputation in the community. Among therapists- and probably all professionals offering knowledge-based services- there are seemingly endless opportunities for professional development and continuing education, and once you get on that treadmill, it’s hard to get off. You’re always trying to better yourself; increase your knowledge; be more effective and knowledgeable. Sometimes it seems that being your own boss is a lot more demanding than answering to someone else. I’m constantly researching learning differences, mental health issues, professional development workshops, curricula, special education regulations… anything and everything to expand my knowledge and increase my value, and therefore the value of my practice, as much as possible. So while I may not have a boss demanding that I do x, y, and z from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, as my own boss, I place just as many demands upon myself. The drive of we entrepreneurs to increase our value is self-generated, coming from a desire to make choices that will enhance our practices, and stemming from passion for our work.

I hope I’ve painted the intended picture of a responsibility-heavy but personally-rewarding profession. As someone who never saw herself as a “leader” per say, having my own practice has stretched me in innumerable ways, simply because there’s no one else to tackle the “hard stuff.” I have to do it all. Yet, it’s strangely empowering to have all responsibility on one’s own shoulders. It’s fun to discover all that I can really do– and what dormant leadership qualities I’ve possessed all along. Certainly, being self-employed demands a separate set of leadership qualities– ones that we may not readily associate with “leaders”– namely intuitiveness, self discipline, and motivation to constantly seek self-enrichment. While at times being self-employed can certainly be a “glass half empty,” for me, a formerly “reluctant leader,” the glass is absolutely half full.

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