In 2006, Guy Browning, a cartoonist and brand consultant, wrote a Guardian article entitled, "How to ... Solve Problems". In it, he wrote,

"Every problem is the birth pang of a new solution. If that sounds overly optimistic, remember that every solution is also the birth pang of a new problem. Life is a series of problem pangs and solution pings. Ping pang, if you like."

Browning was writing about how most problems boil down to communication problems. It's an engaging and worthwhile article to read. It also reminds us about the two-sided nature of changes we make. In solving something, we can plant the seed for a new problem, and in encountering a problem, the seed for a new solution can emerge. This is a useful lens through which to consider the implications of choosing to become self-employed.

For those of us in the middle of our careers, c. late 30s to mid 40s, self-employment can feel like a calling. You've been in your field some time, have proven skills and expertise, and probably have decent networks, wherein there are potential clients. You may also have a view on how things could be done better. You see an opportunity to set out on your own as a freelancer or business owner, and to make a positive difference to your life in the process: you can be your own boss and work how you'd like to. This last point may, of course, be the leading driver behind your desire to become self-employed. Two words of caution then: ping pang.

In becoming self-employed, you may be opening Pandora's box. In an article published in the Journal of Small Business Management, Feldman and Bolino - professors in organisational behaviour - examine the motivations of those who start small business enterprises, and the extent to which self-employment fulfils important career needs. We explore the key trade-offs they identify as commonly experienced by those who go it alone:

  1. Balancing job autonomy and social isolation
  2. Balancing increased scheduling flexibility with decreased vacation and time off
  3. Balancing opportunities to create wealth with greater job insecurity and financial risk
  4. Balancing freedom from organisational bureaucracies with developing new staff and new markets

Balancing Job Autonomy and Social Isolation

Ping. One of the most obvious advantages of self-employment is that you are your own boss: you set the vision, the strategy, the tasks, the projects, the team, and so on.

Pang. It's easy to underestimate the social impact of working for an organisation as opposed to working for oneself. Working in an organisation (depending on the role) often provides you with a constant opportunity for social interaction, and a group or team with whom you can bond, and unite together to work for the organisation’s goals. By contrast, self-employment can be lonely.

There are alternatives to being self-employed and working solo. These include partnerships and utilising co-working spaces, which have found considerable success in the growing self-employed market.

Balancing increased scheduling flexibility with decreased vacation and time off

Ping. For those with families, or who work better with unorthodox schedules, self-employment offers the possibility to set your own hours, stop and start work whenever you like, and to otherwise suit your personal preferences and needs.

Pang. Ironically, a big problem self-employed people face is the difficulty of taking time off. Since they bear all the responsibility for the money that comes in and/or their business’ growth, taking time off can be difficult. Many of those who are self-employed struggle with the flip-flops between extreme busyness and quiet periods.

Balancing opportunities to create wealth with greater job insecurity and financial risk

Ping. Many people come into self-employment with the idea that the sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can make. Those who choose to start their own business see the advantage of controlling and benefiting from profits made.

Pang. It's very tough to make new businesses successful. Indeed, the more time, money, and effort you invest in your new enterprise, the less likely you are to get out before the risk becomes unhealthy. You are also at the mercy of any industrial or economic changes, which can render your business much less profitable, or your USP irrelevant.

Balancing freedom from organisational bureaucracies with developing new staff and new markets

Ping. Self-employment liberates you from all the office politics, bureaucracy, and quota-filling of organisational life.

Pang. Self-employment means that you have to become more involved in the administrative side of running a business: tax, legals, insurances, etc. You also undertake full responsibility for hiring and developing staff, partners, and/or subcontractors. You need to carve out a space in the market for your goods and services, and devote time to marketing and business development. The juggling of all these responsibilities, especially for those who have never been self-employed before, can be a lot to take on.

Self-employment can symbolise freedom, promise, and creativity to many considering starting out on their own. However, when contemplating this step, it's important to understand your motivations, and how far they match up to real-world outcomes. Awareness of the possible trade-offs you'll face is vital. Work out whether you're willing to accept them, and if so, what you want to do about them. Are you ready for the pangs? And do you have the motivation and wherewithal to create new pings?

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