Is Employment Always a Bad Thing?


I love entrepreneurship. I’ve said before that anyone in their twenties with the itch to start a business should be doing so now. Because you have the time, energy and probably don’t have mortgage payments.

Moreover, I believe now is the ideal time for anyone to start a business. The internet is still a teenager, and with it the opportunity has come to start a huge variety of businesses all with one commonality: zero start-up costs.

This throws away the old playbook that said starting a business meant risking your life savings. I strongly support writers like Gary Vaynerchuk, Tim Ferriss or Ben Casnocha, who, in their own ways, are each encouraging people to lead more entrepreneurial lives.

But Is Traditional Employment Really the Enemy?

Just as a magnet can’t exist without two poles, it seems no movement can exist without an enemy. In this case, that enemy is traditional employment.

I don’t really feel this demonizing of more traditional career choices is justified. Not only is it unnecessary, I feel that the excessive blame placed on regular jobs can be an obstacle to people who want to lead a fully entrepreneurial life.

Why Jobs Still Matter

The first reason is obvious: because they pay the bills.

If your side-business can’t support you full-time–you shouldn’t quit your job. Building a business has a sharp learning curve. Unfortunately, the first part of the learning curve earns you almost no money for your efforts.

I’m not here to glorify a quick-rich path of starting a business. I’ve run this business for close to four years, part time. I have earned a full-time income, but that only came in the last two years. Even today, earning that full-time income reliably is the chief goal of mine.

For most of us, a job will provide the necessary bridge to your ideal career.

Some Businesses are Hell Too

The idea that unconventional jobs are necessarily easier and more enjoyable than traditional work is also a big, fat myth. Many businesses suck too.

I know of franchise restaurant owners who needed to work 8-12 hours, every day with no holiday time, in order to keep their businesses afloat. Whenever there was a crisis, they had to be there to clean it up. From my view, their business was far worse than any job I’ve had, or even seriously contemplated.

You can build yourself a cage if you aren’t careful.

Jobs Provide Experience

The one caveat to my twentysomething-start-up suggestion was suggested to me by Ramit Sethi: jobs still matter because you can actually learn a lot at them.

As Ramit explained, “if you work at a company for a few years, you can understand the business environment, customers and skills necessary to succeed. You might be able to find gaps not handled by your current employer, and start your own company to fill them.”

It’s the same as university vs self-education. Sure, you can teach yourself almost anything. But, there are certain types of knowledge that are easier to learn in a school, even if universities aren’t terribly efficient.

Boldness isn’t a business plan. Having some industry experience can put you far ahead when starting a new venture.

Skill is the Currency of Life – Not Your Job Description

My point isn’t that you should shelve your entrepreneurial ambitions to get a “real” job. If my business is earning above my poverty threshold consistently when I graduate, I won’t be on the job hunt.

Then again, if it isn’t, I will get a job to support myself. That wouldn’t be a failure, just another necessary step in pursuing my ideal lifestyle.

You can be a part-time entrepreneur, at least to start. So, entrepreneurship and employment don’t need to be incompatible.

The whole demonizing of regular work, in my mind, seems to miss the point: that skill is the true currency of life, not the method you currently earn an income with.

Or, better said by my friend Cal Newport, “Be so good that the world can’t ignore you.”

“Be So Good that The World Can’t Ignore You”

As Cal explained to me, Thomas Friedman has a nearly unlimited travel budget for his writing at the New York Times, as well as close to a license to write and research whatever he chooses. He may be “employed” but his skill allows him to dictate the terms of his lifestyle.

Even if you account for the precarious fate of the newspaper giant, Friedman isn’t likely to fail. As a best-selling author, he could undoubtedly find work or earn an income, despite his employer.

As an opposite example, consider the franchise owner I mentioned earlier. Here is someone who “runs” a business. Yet, he has to work back-breaking hours, under strict control of his franchisee overseers.

The difference between these two lifestyles isn’t simply the path they chose “business” vs “employment” but that one person has cultivated reputation and immense skill, while the other may not have.

Sure, even with incredible skill, you could still be in a crap job. Skill doesn’t make hellish working conditions better. But, if you have a valuable set of skills the world desires, then the chances you are truly “stuck” there, go down dramatically.

Its unlikely Friedman would be trapped in his position, but the franchise owner may easily be.

The Real Villain is Impatience and Mediocrity

Instead of painting one form of income generation as the enemy, I’d argue the real villain is not investing time to build skill in the first place. Without mastering a skill society values, it will be a struggle to dictate your lifestyle terms to anyone.

  • Anon

    I’m not here to glorify a quick-rich path of starting a business. I’ve ran this business for close to four years, part time.

    I’ve run this business.

    *Fixed. Nobody can accuse me of perfection, that’s for sure. 😉

  • alex

    Great blog. I like the idea of “Learn More, Study Less”. In my part, I study more and learn less. Maybe I have a problem with the functionality of my memory. Anyway, about entrepreneurship, in order to succeed I think the basic skills are having a good management and good strategic plan.

  • Chris

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the article and you’re right – entrepreneurship is only one path to success. One of the challenges with employment is that people don’t challenge themselves enough to develop those skills or develop the boldness you talk about. On the other hand, entrepreneurship can be that path because you invest much more emotionally and potentially financially that it gives you much more motivation to learn those skills and develop that boldness.

    p.s. I just came across your blog recently and enjoyed your e-book how to get more from life

  • Dave

    I think this post was necessary; people like Steve Pavlina demonize employment, and it scares me that some several thousand readers will drop out of school in order to become independent game programmers.

    I for one praise employment; you are absolutely correct when you say employment is an excellent means to learn skills. As a college student, I work part-time in retail. I have learned how to be more persuasive and assertive. I also see first hand the emptiness that consumerism can bring people.
    But just because I’m paid by the hour with a job that doesn’t require many formal skills does not mean it’s drudgery! I get to hang out with people from different backgrounds that I would have never met otherwise; I love when we’re all cleaning the store and just joking around. I also enjoy the challenge of helping a bewildered customer put together a professional wardrobe. It is by no means a meaningful job, but it is certainly enjoyable and I will take these new skills and knowledge with me.

  • Mazdak

    Hypothetical question for your Scott. If you were to have a 9-5 job, lets say for the next five years, what job would you want to do?

  • Tyler Prete

    Don’t forget that at the end of the day, for all these businesses to run and for the upper crust to have 4 hour work weeks, someone has to be running the day to day affairs. Most of these guys (Ferriss, for one) recommend outsourcing, which is fine, but why would we want to demonize the very people that are the heart and soul of our businesses? Starting your own business is not a moral imperative, and it’s not “stupid” to work for someone else. It always amazes me when I hear people calling their own employees stupid or inferior (not to their faces, sure, but by inference). Shows a true lack of class.

  • Sherryl

    My sister and her husband, after 30+ years of employment, bought a business, and that 12 hour day/7 days a week is exactly what they’ve been stuck with in order to keep it afloat. All their skills in earning a weekly wage were worth very little when it came to running their own business.

    Hindsight says they needed to find out more about exactly what it would mean to their lives, but where do you get that kind of on-the-ground information? Running a business means total responsibility for every single thing. I’ve seen lots of people go broke because they couldn’t handle a vital aspect like collecting debts or marketing effectively.

    Even books can’t convey effectively that feeling of “I have to do everything and I don’t know where to start”. I’m lucky that I started very small (while still working) and built up slowly. For those who launch into a business, feet first, it’s a huge commitment and not nearly as easy as it looks from the outside!

  • Joseph “Jojo”

    Scotty… Great stuff once again. I’ve been hoping to read some of your cultural immersion stories in the famed land of Gaul…. Check out the post I just penned about my time in southern Crimea… I would love to hear what you think about it. Happy Holidays :p

  • Steve-Personal Success Factors

    This is one great and needed post, Scott! After reading Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad, I got the same feeling about employment. But it’s easy to jump to the end conclusion without examining some of the realities in between: Kiyosaki was a top sales person for Kodak before he took the leap into entrepeneuring: and he spent 10 years failing before he succeeded.

    Also, it is so vital to work on your skills, as you said, and to become a personal brand of YOU, Inc. The more skilled and innovative you are, the more you are worth to your employer.

    Finally, in this day and age, I believe in the both/and model. You can be both an employee and a business owner. The key is that you maintain ethical values such that you are not spending employer time at the expense of building your personal brand. Becauseif you don’t practice ethics, then you will at some time be forced to be without a job 🙂